Labour’s data obsession


I think I have diagnosed the Party’s problem.

Okay, one of the Labour Party’s problems.

The problem is spreadsheets. Noses are buried so deeply into Microsoft Excel or whichever spreadsheet programme the Labour research team uses, they are losing sight of all political reality.

The party’s Parliamentary team, and certainly its back-office –  or at least those who are left in its back office – are obsessed with data.

Spreadsheets, graphs, data points, shifting trendlines and margin of error are all matters of weird fixation. They are treated like a combination of the Holy Grail and the Holy Bible: the subject of the ultimate quest and also matters of holy writ.

Data is very important but it is just one input. It is not a substitute for being in touch with the community.

But the style of thinking  and personality type which is good at coming up with such data is – how shall we put this delicately – not always best at connecting with other human beings. Yet, Labour’s whole style of thought and strategic thinking now seems driven by this kind of worldview. 

The idea you can wave a graph in front of a struggling, not particularly motivated citizenry in poorer areas such as Clendon or Bell Block or Porirua or Christchurch East, and get them to vote for you, must be close to the ultimate in politically disconnected geekery.

It is why Labour has been obsessed with the output of Statistics New Zealand – an admirable body, in my experience, and one whose staff are magnificently and stroppily resistant to any attempt by any politician to game their statistics or spook them into not reporting inconvenient facts.

And so it is why Grant Robertson and fellow MPs Phil Twyford and Jacinda Ardern attacked the independence and integrity of Statistics New Zealand last month.

If the GDP figures out tomorrow are positive, will they attack Stats NZ on them?

In a different sort away, the infamous Chinese sounding names database Mr Twyford put together last year was a similar example of the same syndrome: the conviction that if data looks awesome on a spreadsheet in an office in Wellington it will be a powerful argument that will confound the party’s enemies and gobsmack the humble Kiwi voter with its brilliance and vision.

Heh yes that seems to be their thinking.

The attack on Statistics New Zealand a month ago has been mentioned: this week, there was the – admittedly much less serious, but equally psychologically telling – refusal to accept the result of the Colmar Brunton poll.

Now, a sensible reaction would have been to shrug, admit Labour is not doing as well as it would like, but perhaps add the classic, rather boring but politically prudent line about not commenting on individual polls.

Instead, Mr Little damned the poll as “bogus.” To compound the matter he then released Labour’s own polling, which had several effects, none of which are helpful to the party.

One is it kept the story going for another 24 hours.

Two, while the junkies might know that UMR is a reputable pollster, undecided voters are only going to hear “Labour’s pollster” and decide the whole thing is a bit of a jack up.

And even the political junkies are asking pointed questions about the weightings used in that UMR poll, what methodology, and precisely what questions were asked. Despite promising to release its methodology, Labour has not done so. 

While the prime minister has not had a good year or two, and many National supporters are getting exasperated, at the minimum, with the growing arrogance coming out of the more elevated floors of the Beehive, a poll which says Andrew Little is more popular than John Key – as Labour’s private polling shows – just doesn’t quite feel right.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, by releasing its own private polling Mr Little showed how rattled Labour is.

If Labour believed their own polls their MPs would be in a buoyant mood, Their leader is more popular than John Key and National is at its lowest level for 10 years with Labour/Greens on the verge of being able to govern alone.

The funny thing is their MPs don’t look at all like they are on the verge of a massive victory.

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